Alrighty. I still have a little motivation left over and I did promise some local content, so let's keep the ball rolling. Today we'll be talking about a place that I actually visited two months ago (where does the time go) but because I'm a lazy bastard I'm kind of the last person in town to talk about it. The Statesman not only reviewed it, it was also only one of two Meridian eateries to make their best new restaurants of 2015 list, an assertion that I agree with. With a caveat or two.
Mekong Fresh Noodle & Grill opened up a few months ago in what I've come to think of as the Musical Chairs Strip Mall on Meridian Road just North of the freeway. There have been so many eateries in and out of that building in the past few years that I can't keep them straight anymore. With the buzz from the Statesman they might have a bit better luck, but there were some issues when I was there, and judging by the customer reviews on their Facebook page not all of them have been fully addressed yet. I digress. I rolled in with my mother and niece in tow, immediately digging the environment and encouraged by the condiment selection available at each table.
Let's talk about the name of the joint for a minute. Referencing the Mekong River isn't just an effort to strike a chord with a familiar name (how many Vietnamese restaurants can you think of with "Saigon" in the name?), Mekong Fresh actually takes their culinary influence from several places their namesake river runs through, primarily Thailand, Vietnam, and perhaps most interestingly, Laos. Interesting, of course, because it's by far the least represented of the three countries in the Treasure Valley restaurant scene. As in not represented at all, so it was a forgone conclusion that I would be focusing on that section of the menu. Mom is a little more comfortable with Thai food and, given the lack of a children's menu, opted to split a noodle dish with my niece. She was willing to take my recommendation of Phad Se Eaw (more commonly seen on local menus as Pad See Ew) as the dish most likely to be agreeable to both of their palates. I had already been leaning toward Tom Kiem myself, and given that it was the special that night and available for a discount, I was sold. The ladies chose to have soda, while I couldn't pass up the opportunity for fresh coconut, which is in itself a rare item around here.
They weren't kidding when they said fresh. They literally just husked it, cracked it, and stuck a straw in it. Let's take a closer look.
Coconut water has surged in popularity recently, but believe me when I tell you that no matter what canned or bottled version you buy, odds are it's not half as good as this. Using young coconuts also results in a somewhat soft and custardy flesh that is easily extracted with the provided spoon. I sipped on this throughout the meal and took the leftovers home with me. The flesh of the coconut made a great dessert later on, and I'd gladly pay the five bucks for another of these when I return. The sodas were not as good, with the water/syrup/carbonation combo being completely off. There was nobody on site who knew how to fix it either. Hell, they might never fix it. An eatery I've been to half a dozen times now has had the same problem on every visit, I just stopped ordering soft drinks after the third attempt.
Ah yes, the appetizers. Almost forgot to mention those. At the time I visited, they had a Facebook post up that allowed you to get a free appetizer with your meal. I don't know if it's still good or not, but it might not hurt to mention it. I chose the egg rolls, a perennial favorite of mine. Vietnamese style and very decent, if not particularly outstanding.
The crab rangoon my mother chose were better, at least in my mind. There was a good ratio of crab to cream cheese, and the wrappers were nice and crispy. And now, on to the main event...
My mother, still reeling from the soda debacle (you don't want to come between her and her Dr. Pepper), was very disappointed with the Phad Se Eaw. She was not impressed with the flavor, which to be fair I warned her was pretty mild and comfort foodish, or with the portion size. She mentioned it to the staff and was assured that the prices/portions are "appropriate", which I took to mean comparable/competitive with other area restaurants, but I have to call bullshit on that count. Perhaps I've just been lucky enough not to eat at those other restaurants. I normally order this dish at Pad Thai House or Thai Basil, where roughly the same amount of money gets you not only a larger portion but a higher protein to noodle and veggie ratio. This is not a serving that will result in leftovers, nor was it adequate to feed an adult and a small child, both of whom would have left hungry if not for the appetizers.
My Tom Kiem was much more successful, though I was a little concerned about the portion at first as well. What I got was a bowl with four decent-sized pork chunks and a hard boiled egg stewed in ginger and sweet dark soy sauce, a basket of Lao sticky rice, and a small side of spicy sauce. Here's the thing though: between the fattiness of the pork and the generous amount of rice, this is actually a damned filling dish. At least one piece of pork was trotter, with a band of fat around it so thick that I was convinced it would be chewy or just plain rubbery, but it had been cooked so perfectly that it literally melted in my mouth. The potently spicy sauce cut through the sweetness of the soy, and the sticky rice, which is the best I've ever been served, cut the heat from the spicy sauce. This was my first experience with Laotian cuisine, and if it's fairly representative then I can't wait to try more.
At the end of the meal we were brought a dessert of sorts. Asian desserts traditionally don't translate very well to the Western palate, and this one (I was never given a name) isn't going to gain a lot of fans here. It was creamy, and as far as I could tell consisted of tapioca pearls, sweet potato, and sweet corn. My companions pushed their bowls away after a taste or two, but I soldiered through half of mine before finally admitting to myself that I just can't reconcile corn in a dessert at this point.
I have yet to try their limited Pho selection or their sole Banh Mi option, but I figure that the Vietnamese offerings are probably much like their Thai items, inasmuch that there are plenty of places around here to get them cheaper and likely better. If I had the ear of the people behind Mekong Fresh, I'd tell them to focus on and build upon their Laotian fare. They're good at it, and nobody else is doing it. Keep a few of the more familiar offerings for the timid types, the way that Chinese and Mexican joints serve burgers for that annoying relative who always tags along on family outings but has Xenophobic tastebuds. We have enough Jack of all trades eateries, don't we?
Food: Let your conscience be your guide, but I strongly recommend sticking to the Laotian portion of the menu based on my experience and the reviews I've read.
Value: Arguable, depending on who you're talking to. The best value is, again, in the Laotian offerings, because you can't get them anywhere else around here.
Service: Friendly but still a little green when I visited, I'm assuming they've come along since then. Guess I'll find out when I go back to try the Pun Nem Noung.
Atmosphere: Clean and bright, if a little strip-mallish.
Final Grade: B+